A spoonful a day keeps the doctor away

'Honey' cc Louisa Wood

Bees have been in the news a lot recently. The plight of the little honey bee, as it does battle against the evil force of pesticides like neonicotinoids, has made it somewhat of a damsel in distress, and we are regularly reminded of just how hard our lives would become if we lost the valuable pollination services that this little fellow provides.

However what I really want to talk about here is an old wives tale that has become something of a widespread belief…..the concept that honey has a vital role to play in alleviating the symptoms of allergy sufferers.

So what is this all about? The basic idea is that honey produced locally contains minute quantities of pollen spores from neighbourhood flowers, transferred there by the honey bees themselves. It is thought that if you regularly consume this ‘local honey’ (even just a spoonful a day) your body can build up immunity through gradual exposure to local allergens. In fact the concept itself is actually very similar to allergen-specific immunotherapy; whereby doctors treat allergy sufferers by injecting them with small but ever increasing doses of allergens i.e. pollen, house-mites and grass. Allergen-specific immunotherapy can in some cases deliver improvements in hayfever symptoms over and above that which can be achieved via the taking of drugs like antihistamines. Logical reasoning so far then, no?

But is there any scientific proof for this rather eloquent theory? Sadly the answer is a disappointing and rather resounding NO. In a study published in a rather important Asthma journal (the Annals of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology) in 2002, scientists found that allergy sufferers treated with honey (either locally or commercially produced) displayed no improvement in symptoms compared to people that were given the placebo treatment (i.e. no honey or in this case a corn syrup substitute). According to sage scientist (Dr Stanley Fineman, president of the very important Asthma journal), this is because seasonal allergies like hayfever result from windborne pollen, rather than pollen spread by insects like bees. Thus honey is likely to have very little effect; it’s just the wrong sort of pollen.

What should we take from this? Thousands of people every year claim that the consumption of honey significantly improves their hayfever symptoms, regardless of whether scientists have conclusively demonstrated any sort of beneficial property. The placebo effect should not be underestimated, and neither should your granny. However, if I were you, I wouldn’t turn down your antihistamines anytime soon!

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Louisa Wood

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